Minnesota has a law that prohibits politicians from raising money during the legislative session, but federal law isn't as strict, and that has one watchdog group concerned.
Gov. Pawlenty held two fundraisers in the Twin Cities this week for his federal political action committee. Pawlenty has been raising money in cities across the country since he created the PAC in October.
On Tuesday night, about 275 young Republicans visited the posh Chambers Hotel in downtown Minneapolis to support Gov. Pawlenty's PAC. They agreed to pay at least $50 to see Pawlenty speak and reporters weren't allowed into the event. But before it started, Pawlenty said he was pleased with the turnout.
"On a Minnesota winter night to get this large of a turnout; we're grateful for the help," Pawlenty said.
On Wednesday night, guests at a St. Paul fundraiser were asked to give even more money to Pawlenty's PAC. This time the suggested contribution was $250.
Pawlenty, who has not ruled out a run for the White House in 2012, is now playing on a bigger fundraising field than his gubernatorial campaigns.
As a statewide candidate, Pawlenty was bound by Minnesota campaign finance law that bars candidates from accepting special interest money during the legislative session. His PAC can also accept more than twice as much as he was limited to as a candidate for governor with donations of up to $5,000.
“I'm concerned that lobbyists and other special interest groups are going to use his federal PAC as a way to curry special favors.”Mike Dean, Common Cause Minnesota
Even though federal law allows him to take the money, Pawlenty said he intends to turn back contributions from Minnesota-based lobbyists during the session, which begins on February second.
"We're going to try to abide by the Minnesota state principle that you shouldn't accept contributions from Minnesota lobbyists during the legislative session if you're a state office holder, even though we're not required to follow that," Pawlenty said.
But Pawlenty said he will continue to accept donations from federal lobbyists, lobbyists from other states and non-Minnesota based PACs. That's troubling to Mike Dean with Common Cause Minnesota, a group that focuses on campaign finance reform.
"I'm concerned that lobbyists and other special interest groups are going to use his federal PAC as a way to curry special favors," Dean said.
Dean couldn't give specifics when asked which issues he was concerned about. He said the appearance of a conflict of interest is enough and said he's pleased Pawlenty is voluntarily rejecting special interest money from Minnesota lobbyists during the legislative session. But he said Pawlenty needs to go a step further.
"He should not accept any lobbyist money during the legislative session," he said. "Both from state registered lobbyists but also from federal registered lobbyists."
Dean is calling for something that goes beyond what Minnesota currently allows for statewide candidates. Gary Goldsmith, executive director of the Minnesota Campaign Finance Board, said federal lobbyists can contribute to any state candidate as long as the lobbyists are not registered in Minnesota.
"Minnesota law has a very specific definition of a lobbyist and that means a lobbyist in Minnesota," Goldsmith said. "For example, somebody who is a lobbyist on the federal level could give to a Minnesota state candidate even during our session unless they're also a lobbyist on the state level."
Goldsmith also said state office holders who are running for federal offices aren't bound by state law when they raise money for their federal campaigns. For example, a state senator running for Congress would be eligible to take Minnesota lobbyist contributions for a congressional campaign during session.
It isn't clear yet who gave to Pawlenty's PAC or how much he's raised to date. His first campaign finance report isn't due until the end of the month.